Julius Steinmann in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 07/07/2021 - 07:22

In his Commentary to Shade’s poem Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions an especially brilliant impersonator of the King, the tennis ace Julius Steinmann:


The Zemblan Revolution provided Gradus with satisfactions but also produced frustrations. One highly irritating episode seems retrospectively most significant as belonging to an order of things that Gradus should have learned to expect but never did. An especially brilliant impersonator of the King, the tennis ace Julius Steinmann (son of the well-known philanthropist), had eluded for several months the police who had been driven to the limits of exasperation by his mimicking to perfection the voice of Charles the Beloved in a series of underground radio speeches deriding the government. When finally captured he was tried by a special commission, of which Gradus was a member, and condemned to death. The firing squad bungled their job, and a little later the gallant young man was found recuperating from his wounds at a provincial hospital. When Gradus learned of this, he flew into one of his rare rages--not because the fact presupposed royalist machinations, but because the clean, honest, orderly course of death had been interfered with in an unclean, dishonest, disorderly manner. Without consulting anybody he rushed to the hospital, stormed in, located Julius in a crowded ward and managed to fire twice, both times missing, before the gun was wrested from him by a heft male nurse. He rushed back to headquarters and returned with a dozen soldiers but his patient had disappeared. (note to Line 171)


Stein is German for “stone.” The poems in Mandelshtam’s collection Kamen’ (“Stone,” 1915) include Tennis (1913). In the last stanza of his poem Evropa (“Europe,” 1914) also included in “Stone” Mandelshtam exclaims: Evropa tsezarey! (“Europe of the Caesars!”):


Как средиземный краб или звезда морская,
Был выброшен водой последний материк.
К широкой Азии, к Америке привык,
Слабеет океан, Европу омывая.


Изрезаны её живые берега,
И полуостровов воздушны изваянья;
Немного женственны заливов очертанья:
Бискайи, Генуи ленивая дуга.


Завоевателей исконная земля —
Европа в рубище Священного союза —
Пята Испании, Италии Медуза
И Польша нежная, где нету короля.


Европа цезарей! С тех пор, как в Бонапарта
Гусиное перо направил Меттерних, —
Впервые за сто лет и на глазах моих
Меняется твоя таинственная карта!


Europe of the Caesars! Since the time when at Bonaparte

Metternich aimed his goose pen,

For the first time in a hundred years, and before my eyes,

Your mysterious map is changing.


In the poem’s first line Mandelshtam compares Europe (“the last continent”) to a Mediterranean crab or a starfish. According to Kinbote, Gradus (Shade's murderer) is a cross between bat and crab:


For almost a whole year after the King's escape the Extremists remained convinced that he and Odon had not left Zembla. The mistake can be only ascribed to the streak of stupidity that fatally runs through the most competent tyranny. Airborne machines and everything connected with them cast a veritable spell over the minds of our new rulers whom kind history had suddenly given a boxful of these zipping and zooming gadgets to play with. That an important fugitive would not perform by air the act of fleeing seemed to them inconceivable. Within minutes after the King and the actor had clattered down the backstairs of the Royal Theater, every wing in the sky and on the ground had been accounted for - such was the efficiency of the government. During the next weeks not one private or commercial plane was allowed to take off, and the inspection of transients became so rigorous and lengthy that international lines decided to cancel stopovers at Onhava. There were some casualties. A crimson balloon was enthusiastically shot down and the aeronaut (a well-known meteorologist) drowned in the Gulf of Surprise. A pilot from a Lapland base flying on a mission of mercy got lost in the fog and was so badly harassed by Zemblan fighters that he settled atop a mountain peak. Some excuse for all this could be found. The illusion of the King's presence in the wilds of Zembla was kept up by royalist plotters who decoyed entire regiments into searching the mountains and woods of our rugged peninsula. The government spent a ludicrous amount of energy on solemnly screening the hundreds of impostors packed in the country's jails. Most of them clowned their way back to freedom; a few, alas, fell. Then, in the spring of the following year, a stunning piece of news came from abroad. The Zemblan actor Odon was directing the making of a cinema picture in Paris!

It was now correctly conjectured that if Odon had fled, the King had fled too: At an extraordinary session of the Extremist government there was passed from hand to hand, in grim silence, a copy of a French newspaper with the headline: L'EN-ROI DE ZEMBLA EST-IL À PARIS? Vindictive exasperation rather than state strategy moved the secret organization of which Gradus was an obscure member to plot the destruction of the royal fugitive. Spiteful thugs! They may be compared to hoodlums who itch to torture the invulnerable gentleman whose testimony clapped them in prison for life. Such convicts have been known to go berserk at the thought that their elusive victim whose very testicles they crave to twist and tear with their talons, is sitting at a pergola feast on a sunny island or fondling some pretty young creature between his knees in serene security - and laughing at them! One supposes that no hell can be worse than the helpless rage they experience as the awareness of that implacable sweet mirth reaches them and suffuses them, slowly destroying their brutish brains. A group of especially devout Extremists calling themselves the Shadows had got together and swore to hunt down the King and kill him wherever he might be. They were, in a sense, the shadow twins of the Karlists and indeed several had cousins or even brothers among the followers of the King. No doubt, the origin of either group could be traced to various reckless rituals in student fraternities and military clubs, and their development examined in terms of fads and anti-fads; but, whereas an objective historian associates a romantic and noble glamor with Karlism, its shadow group must strike one as something definitely Gothic and nasty. The grotesque figure of Gradus, a cross between bat and crab, was not much odder than many other Shadows, such as, for example, Nodo, Odon's epileptic half-brother who cheated at cards, or a mad Mandevil who had lost a leg in trying to make anti-matter. Gradus had long been a member of all sorts of jejune leftist organizations. He had never killed, though coming rather close to it several times in his gray life. He insisted later that when he found himself designated to track down and murder the King, the choice was decided by a show of cards - but let us not forget that it was Nodo who shuffled and dealt them out. Perhaps our man's foreign origin secretly prompted a nomination that would not cause any son of Zembla to incur the dishonor of actual regicide. We can well imagine the scene: the ghastly neon lights of the laboratory, in an annex of the Glass Works, where the Shadows happened to hold their meeting that night; the ace of spades lying on the tiled floor, the vodka gulped down out of test tubes; the many hands clapping Gradus on his round back, and the dark exultation of the man as he received those rather treacherous congratulations. We place this fatidic moment at 0:05, July 2, 1959 - which happens to be also the date upon which an innocent poet penned the first lines of his last poem. (note to Line 171)


Julius Steinmann has the same first name as Julius Caesar. In his poem Solntse (“The Sun,” 1923) translated by DN as Provence VN says that the same cicadas sang in Caesar’s reign:


Слоняюсь переулками без цели,

прислушиваюсь к древним временам:

при Цезаре цикады те же пели,

и то же солнце стлалось по стенам.


Поёт платан, и ствол в пятнистом блеске;

поёт лавчонка; можно отстранить

легко звенящий бисер занавески:

поёт портной, вытягивая нить.


И женщина у круглого фонтана

поёт, полощет синее бельё,

и пятнами ложится тень платана

на камни, на корзину, на неё.


Как хорошо в звенящем мире этом

скользить плечом вдоль меловых оград,

быть русским заблудившимся поэтом

средь лепета латинского цикад!


I wander aimlessly from lane to lane,

bending a careful ear to ancient times:

the same cicadas sang in Caesar’s reign,

upon the walls the same sun clings and climbs.


The plane tree sings: with light its trunk is pied;

the little shop sings: delicately tings

the bead-stringed curtain that you push aside—

and, pulling on his thread, the tailor sings.


And at a fountain with a rounded rim,

rinsing blue linen, sings a village girl,

and mottle shadows of the plane tree swim

over the stone, the wickerwork, and her.


What bliss it is, in this world full of song,

to brush against the chalk of walls, what bliss

to be a Russian poet lost among

cicadas trilling with a Latin lisp!


In Canto Two of his poem Shade mentions waxwings and a singing cicada:


Today I'm sixty-one. Waxwings               

Are berry-pecking. A cicada sings. (ll. 181-182)


In the first (and, according to Kinbote, in the last) line of his poem Shade compares himself to the shadow of the waxwing (a bird of the genus Bombycilla). Shade’s poem is almost finished, when the author is killed by Gradus. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade's poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski, a poem (1862) by Polonski, a poem (1904) by Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody,” I. Annenski’s penname) and a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok. In his poem Tyomnykh uz zemnogo zatochen'ya... ("The dark bonds of earthly imprisonment..." 1910) Mandelshtam says that he is pursued by a double:


Темных уз земного заточенья
Я ничем преодолеть не мог,
И тяжелым панцирем презренья
Я окован с головы до ног.

Иногда со мной бывает нежен
И меня преследует двойник;
Как и я — он так же неизбежен
И ко мне внимательно приник.

И, глухую затаив развязку,
Сам себя я вызвал на турнир;
С самого себя срываю маску
И презрительный лелею мир.

Я своей печали недостоин,
И моя последняя мечта —
Роковой и краткий гул пробоин
Моего узорного щита.


Julius Steinmann is a son of the well-known philanthropist. Der Philanthrop (“The Philanthropist,” 1853) is a poem by Heinrich Heine. According to Heine (a German poet who lived in exile in Paris), his French friends often mispronounced his name Henri Enn and sometimes even shortened it to Rien (“Mr. Nobody”). Heine’s poem Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen (“The night is quiet, the streets are calm…”) was set to music (as Der Doppelgänger) by Franz Schubert. In his poem V tot vecher ne gudel strel’chatyi les organa… (“That Evening the forest of organ pipes did not play…” 1918), with the epigraph from Heine’s poem about the doppelganger, Mandelshtam mentions Schubert:


Du, Doppelgänger, du, bleicher Geselle!..

В тот вечер не гудел стрельчатый лес органа.
Нам пели Шуберта — родная колыбель!
Шумела мельница, и в песнях урагана
Смеялся музыки голубоглазый хмель!

Старинной песни мир — коричневый, зеленый,
Но только вечно-молодой,
Где соловьиных лип рокочущие кроны
С безумной яростью качает царь лесной.

И сила страшная ночного возвращенья —
Та песня дикая, как чёрное вино:
Это двойник — пустое привиденье —
Бессмысленно глядит в холодное окно!


Du, Doppelgänger, du, bleicher Geselle!..

That evening the forest of organ pipes did not play.
A native cradle sang Schubert for us,
The mill was grinding, the music's blue-eyed drunkenness
Laughed in the songs of the hurricane.

The world of the old song – brown, green,
But only eternally young where the Erl-king
Shakes the rumbling crowns of nightingaled
Linden trees in savage rage.

The awesome force of night's return,
That wild song, like black wine:
It is a double, a hollow ghost
Peering senselessly through the cold window!


Schubert also set to music Goethe’s Erlkönig, a poem whose opening lines are a leitmotif in Pale Fire. Starinnoy pesni mir – korichnevyi, zelyonyi (“the world of the old song – brown, green”) in the second stanza of Mandelshtam’s poem brings to mind “the man in green” (Gerald Emerald, a young instructor at Wordsmith University who gives Gradus a lift to Kinbote’s house in New Wye) and “the man in brown” (Gradus) mentioned by Kinbote in his Commentary:


Did they talk in the car, these two characters, the man in green and the man in brown? Who can say? They did not. After all, the drive took only a few minutes (it took me, at the wheel of my powerful Kramler, four and a half). (note to Line 949)


“The man in green” and “the man in brown” bring to mind chyornyi chelovek (the man in black) mentioned by Mozart in Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri” (1830):


Так слушай.
Недели три тому, пришёл я поздно
Домой. Сказали мне, что заходил
За мною кто-то. Отчего — не знаю,
Всю ночь я думал: кто бы это был?
И что ему во мне? Назавтра тот же
Зашел и не застал опять меня.
На третий день играл я на полу
С моим мальчишкой. Кликнули меня;
Я вышел. Человек, одетый в черном,
Учтиво поклонившись, заказал
Мне Requiem и скрылся. Сел я тотчас
И стал писать — и с той поры за мною
Не приходил мой черный человек;
А я и рад: мне было б жаль расстаться
С моей работой, хоть совсем готов
Уж Requiem. Но между тем я...


Мне совестно признаться в этом...


В чём же?

Мне день и ночь покоя не даёт
Мой черный человек. За мною всюду
Как тень он гонится. Вот и теперь
Мне кажется, он с нами сам-третей


Then listen:
About three weeks ago, I came back home
Quite late at night. They told me that some person
Had called on me. And then, I don't know why,
The whole night through I thought: who could it be?
What does he need of me? Tomorrow also
The same man came and didn't find me in.
The third day, I was playing with my boy
Upon the floor. They hailed me; I came out
Into the hall. A man, all clad in black,
Bowed courteously in front of me, commissioned
A Requiem and vanished. I at once
Sat down and started writing it -- and since,
My man in black has not come by again.
Which makes me glad, because I would be sorry
To part with my endeavor, though the Requiem
Is nearly done. But meanwhile I am...


I'm quite ashamed to own to this...

What is it?

By day and night my man in black would not
Leave me in peace. Wherever I might go,
He tails me like a shadow. Even now
It seems to me he's sitting here with us,
A third... (Scene II, tr. Genia Gurarie)


At the end of Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):


Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.


If only all so quickly felt the power
Of harmony! But no, in that event
The world could not exist; none would care
about the basic needs of ordinary life,
All would give themselves to unencumbered art. (ibid.)


Nikto b is Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) in reverse. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade’s “real” name). Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.


See also the expanded version of my previous post, “elongated Persty grapes in Ada; Vinogradus in Pale Fire.”